The Texas Textbook Massacre: review of The Revisionaries

Usually we don’t get too political on this blog. But we take a pretty clear stand on teaching evolution. And if anyone ever came to us and demanded that we “teach the controversy“, we’d laugh really hard and then move our company to a country that wasn’t completely insane. So my perspective on what happened with the revision of science curriculum and textbooks in Texas is probably not a surprise. And I’ll be describing my view of the new film The Revisionaries with that in mind.

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For some people, the concept of “evolution” is something of an esoteric discussion. It doesn’t really impact most of their days. Here at OpenHelix, though, it’s sort of the foundation of what we do. At each workshop we do I stand in front of people and talk about the representation of “evolutionary relationships” that they can evaluate in the UCSC Genome Browser, or some other tool.

So when I was notified by NCSE that this new documentary film The Revisionaries, about the Texas SBOE (State Board of Education) process to review and revise the science textbooks to discredit evolution, was playing at the Boston Independent Film Festival, I wanted to see how that transpired.

I had been aware that the process had happened, and that it was being driven by that odd species of Young Earth Creationist (YEC) that you hear about if you live in Massachusetts, but rarely see in the wild. It was fascinating to learn about how the Texas process played out.

The film focuses largely on the guy who was chair of the board from the round of revisions that comprised the science pieces. Don McLeroy is a dentist and unabashed YEC. You see him in his office proselytizing to patients who can’t really talk back, ironically enough. And you see him steer the board into some dangerous and wrong conclusions about what students should be hearing in their science classes. You can seem him quickly degenerate into word salad when asked to explain concepts related to the material. At the same time they dismiss the testimony of anyone with actual expertise in science. It’s excruciating to see.

It’s something like watching the croquet scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And a surprise in the film is that you discover that there is a Queen of Hearts on the board too:

I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion – a blind and aimless Fury.
–Lewis Carroll

She comes off as much more malign and scary than Don—but I don’t want to detail that much more, you should see that play out in full, it would be something of a spoiler to provide any more.

There are some heroes of sanity. Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) clearly battles daily to keep religion and misinformation out of the public schools. Eugenie Scott (NCSE) and Ron Wetherington are shown carrying the flag of reality. But from the film you learn additional background of the Texas process and system that have really stacked the deck against them.

Although the film begins with the issues in 2009 on the science components, it turns later (and chillingly) to what happened next in 2010. I was unaware that the same group was focusing their attention to the Social Science and History curriculum. With the same strategies.  They were doing to history what they had done to science: using their influence and bafflegab to drop Jefferson from prominence, while elevating Aquinas and Calvin. They wanted to pump up the role of the social conservative movement during the Reagan era. And to strike hip-hop from the text and replace that with “country music”. I kid you not.

It’s hard to watch this film. Luckily I was with an audience that shared my horror at the anti-science sentiments that were flying around. And because it was a film festival showing we also were able to discuss the film with the director Scott Thurman to learn more. One attendee noted that in some ways Don comes off likeable—because at least he’s being honest about exactly who he is and what he believes. And the director tells us Don likes the film. It didn’t surprise me, because you also see him enjoying the radio attack ads against him during the re-election campaign which define him exactly how he sees himself—as a young earther trying to influence the textbooks. This doesn’t exactly gel with his claims that he’s not trying to influence the board with his own beliefs. But you can see how his brain works (such as it is).

More discussion with attendees after the film was hopeful. Textbook writers and publishers were in the group I was with, commiserating on the influences of special interest groups on education. It was noted that after learning about the Texas process some schools specifically avoid the texts approved there—which is a good side effect and may reduce their influence overall. A professor from Emerson College was hoping to bring this film to his communication students to show them about the influences on publishing. There were some good ideas: how the current technology should reduce the influence of big states like Texas and enable chapters to be swapped out to be better for other school districts. On the other hand—the publisher warned—this also enables teachers to swap out what they want more easily; be careful what we wish for here.

It was certainly a film you should see if you care about education, and science, even if it’s difficult to endure. Because this is not over. And it’s time that more people—especially science defenders–were paying attention to the down-ballot races, and school committees, and other types of community efforts like these. And don’t think they’ve stopped at science class—they are going after history and social studies now as well. Experts on those topics need to step up and join the fray.

One attendee noted that people who aren’t paying attention, aren’t voting, and aren’t participating in these types of things are just as responsible as Don for what happened. And I couldn’t agree more.

Trailer. Catch it if you can. Watch for local film festivals, maybe later on DVD.